Parental Rights: A Christian Natural Law Primer


Published May 23, 2022

Eikon

The next frontier of the sexual revolution is parental rights. That might initially sound hyperbolic. Governments are not, after all, removing children from their homes in any sort of systematic way.

The problem, banal as it may seem, is that the intellectual superstructure is already in place to chip away at parental authority over children’s lives. This may not result in the immediate removal of children from Christian homes, but instead the denial of Christian parents to oversee the development and upbringing of their children as they see fit. Instances throughout the culture exist that, though not frequent, should be enough to cause Christians to shudder about the prospects threatening parental rights.

In Ohio, a child was removed from a home (and placed with grandparents) where Christian parents did not affirm the child’s gender transition.[1] Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet caused a national uproar for suggesting there ought to be a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling, a popular educational option that shelters children from state-sponsored secular progressivism.[2] In 2013, MSNBC journalist Melissa Harris-Perry set out the bald assertion that it is a mistake that American society has thought of children as the exclusive province of parents. She declared: “We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.”[3] As of this writing, a national controversy has erupted where celebrities and intellectuals across the nation are defending the rights of Florida public school teachers to indoctrinate students ages Kindergarten through third grade on issues of sexuality and gender.[4]

I would be remiss not to mention the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell ruling. Though focused on same-sex marriage, as Christian philosopher John Milbank has observed, the logic of same-sex marriage’s legality is to blur the distinction between the legal and natural definitions of family, thus handing significant power to the state to define the boundaries and make-up of family life. Same-sex marriage, according to Milbank, is

a strategic move in the modern state’s drive to assume direct control over the reproduction of the population, bypassing our interpersonal encounters. This is not about natural justice, but the desire on the part of biopolitical tyranny to destroy marriage and the family as the most fundamental mediating social institution. Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very “grammar” of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction.[5] 

As Milbank envisages, the threat posed by same-sex marriage is not so much that homosexuals may enter “marriage,” but that the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples reconfigures the nature of family life apart from any sort of biological foundation, thus ceding to the state control over what defines the very bonds of family to begin with.

If culture continues to secularize as many expect it to, we should assume that episodes that call into question the primacy of the natural family and the authority of its bonds will repeat and escalate. It will require Christians to articulate that which has long been tacitly assumed: A doctrine of parental rights as a pre-political, indissoluble bond between parents and child that upholds the rights of parents to oversee the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development of their children.

The fundamental question of parental rights, put forward by Melissa Moschella of The Catholic University of America, presents as rather obvious: “To whom do children belong?”[6] Common sense would tell us that the biological progenitors are the individuals most aptly suited to care for the child without third party intervention.[7] Hence, political philosophers have argued that the natural family is the “least restrictive means” to see children cared for without the state first needing to resolve these matters artificially. But a more fulsome answer requires incorporating and harmonizing both Scripture and natural law theory as mutually reinforcing categories. As Christians, we would answer that children belong, ultimately, to the Lord (Ps 127:3). God graciously bestows children to husband and wife as an embodied expression of their covenantal union. The act that unites man and woman as one flesh is the same act capable of bringing forth sons and daughters — populations that make possible the exercising of dominion over creation (Gen 1:26-28). The God who gives children to parents bestows on parents the earthly responsibility to care for them (1 Tim 5:8). As the Fifth Commandment instructs, children are to obey their parents (Deut 5:16). The entire pattern of family life established in Scripture recognizes parents as the authority figures over their children.

But what does it mean, exactly, for children to belong to their parents? Because husband and wife bear biological responsibility for their child’s existence (cause), they bear a unique personal responsibility for their care (effect). While we are prone to think of “rights” as primarily possessive in nature, rights as they are conceived within the communion of parent and child entails responsibility for the child’s welfare. Children are not “ours” in any selfish sense, but “ours” in the sense of bearing unique relationship and responsibility. Said differently, there are other children I care for in a general sense (in wishing them no harm and even seeking their protection in an emergency) but there are other children — my own children — who I care for in an even deeper sense. These are the biological offspring of my wife and me, persons for whom our intimate knowledge breeds a deep familial bond unlike that of other children. The “right” I have to my children extends in proportion to the type of bond my wife and I have with them.

The relationship of parent and child is unlike any other type of biological or social relationship that could potentially lay claim to the status of being the child’s guardian. As Moschella argues, parents have a unique competence that allows children “to gain important insights about their own identity through their interactions with their biological family, and, perhaps most importantly, benefit profoundly from experiencing the secure and unconditional love of those who brought them into being.”[8] Offspring of a husband and wife are in a unique position to give to their children the full gamut of their origin — their ethnicity, their ancestry, and the knowledge of their genetic make-up (were genetic disorders a known concern). Parents are, simply put, the most natural and well-suited persons to care for their children.

What the reverse side of this reality represents is a heinous violation of the natural law: The denying, disrupting, or thwarting of the natural parent-child bond. Nothing would seem so gravely unjust than the taking of a child from the loving bond of his or her own parents. As Thomas Aquinas writes, “it would be contrary to natural justice, if a child, before coming to the use of reason, were to be taken away from its parents’ custody, or anything done to it against its parents’ wish.”[9] Aquinas’s explanation hardly needs further elaboration. His point is clear: Parents have a natural right to the children they bring forth. Episodes we know of where children were forcibly taken from parents strike observers as some of the most callous and vicious expressions of human evil.

The parent-child relationship arises spontaneously outside the direct auspices of the state. In other words, because the state has no natural authority over fertility, it lacks the mandate, jurisdiction, and competency to interrupt the parent-child bond. The state ought to remediate a situation of parental breakdown where abuse, divorce, death, or any other similar privation occurs — and even here, it should look to the next of biological kin to safeguard any children. The state’s role in recognizing the parent-child bond is to afford it a sacrosanct bond of unbending deference.

It is unlikely, as of this writing, for children to be forcibly taken from the home of Christian parents simply because the parents are Christian. Even still, it is the deference I speak of above that stands as the true test of our future. Christian parents must remain vigilant to defend the primacy of their relationship to their child, insisting that the state’s role is limited to safeguarding children only in the event of familial breakdown, not ideological disagreement.

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a Contributing Editor with CBMW, Managing Editor of WORLD Opinions, and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center.


[1] Jen Christensen, “Judge Gives Grandparents Custody of Ohio Transgender Teen,” CNN, February 16, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/16/health/ohio-transgender-teen-hearing-judge-decision/index.html.

[2] Erin O’Donnell, “The Risks of Homeschooling,” Harvard Magazine, April 10, 2020, https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2020/05/right-now-risks-homeschooling.

[3] David Martosko, “Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck Slam MSNBC Promo as Anchor Melissa Harris-Perry Says Children ‘belong to Communities,’” Daily Mail, April 8, 2013, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2305991/Sarah-Palin-Glenn-Beck-slam-MSNBC-promo-anchor-Melissa-Harris-Perry-says-children-belong-communities.html.

[4] Ronald Brownstein, “Want to Understand the Red-State Onslaught? Look at Florida.,” The Atlantic, March 10, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2022/03/florida-dont-say-gay-law/627021/.

[5] John Milbank, “The Impossibility of Gay Marriage and the Threat of Biopolitical Control,” ABC Religion & Ethics (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), April 23, 2013, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/the-impossibility-of-gay-marriage-and-the-threat-of-biopolitical/10099888.

[6] Melissa Moschella, To Whom Do Children Belong?: Parental Rights, Civic Education, and Children’s Autonomy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[7] I would like to note that this essay speaks only to the context and scope of the natural biological family. Questions of adoption, though important, are outside the scope of this essay.

[8] Melissa Moschella, “The Fundamental Case for Parental Rights,” Public Discourse, October 6, 2014, https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2014/10/13635/.

[9] ST II-II Q. 10 A. 12

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash


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